Nominated for an Oscar and now streaming on HBO Max, Navalny portrays the man who became the face of the movement.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine once again confirmed to the world the horrors of the authoritarian regime of President Vladimir Putin. Because of strict censorship rules and aggressive law enforcement, Russian citizens have tried to speak out against their government for years. One name that has become a symbol of hope against this corrupt government is 46-year-old Alexei Navalny. Navalny, a new documentary that examines the most dramatic chapter of his life, makes a compelling case for the revolution.
“If you are killed, if it happens, what message will you leave to the Russian people?” director Daniel Roer asks Navalny in the first frame. The activist, a straightforward but charismatic man, replies, “Oh, come on, Daniel. No, no way. It’s as if you’re making a movie about my death.”
This brief exchange immediately gives the viewer an idea of what’s at stake for Navalny, who adds, “Let’s make this movie a thriller. And then, when they kill me, you can make a boring movie about memories.”
The film’s namesake is a well-known leader of the Russian opposition movement, who first started working as a young lawyer. By gaining access to confidential business information as a shareholder in several Russian companies, he exposed the Kremlin’s corrupt practices. Navalny founded the Anti-Corruption Foundation in 2011, and in 2013 launched his now popular YouTube channel. He led numerous opposition protests and unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Moscow and president of Russia. After becoming an opposition activist, Navalny has been jailed more than 10 times and is now so hated by the Kremlin that Putin refuses to mention his name in public.
But “Navalny” is not a biographical story about the life path of a titled person. Instead, Roer focuses on one event in Navalny’s life: when he was poisoned by the Kremlin in August 2020.
The film tells the story of how Navalny became seriously ill and lost consciousness during a flight from Siberia to Moscow, as a result of which the flight was diverted. Navalny was taken to the Kremlin hospital, where little was known about his condition. When the Kremlin wouldn’t even allow Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalny, or their personal doctor to visit him, as shown in the film, people around the world demanded his release. After two days of protest, the Kremlin allowed him to be flown to Berlin.
Navalny miraculously survived. Doctors in Berlin discovered he had been poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok, a deadly substance developed by the Soviet government. Since the Kremlin denies all claims of involvement, it is unlikely that the truth will ever be revealed. However, in the film, investigative journalist Hristo Grozev, who is described as a “cute Bulgarian nerd with a laptop,” finds information that may help reveal who poisoned Navalny. When the two men, along with Maria Pevchikh, head of investigations at the Anti-Corruption Foundation, team up to analyze Grozev’s findings, the film moves from a standard factual documentary to a spy thriller. The tense atmosphere helps build to a climax so incredible that even Hollywood couldn’t come up with it.
Despite the high stakes, “Navalny” stands out for its humanization of its subject. Rohr avoids idealizing Navalny by including his past involvement in nationalist causes and financial abuses in the film. While Navalny’s actions over the years are laudable, they have also caused him and his family great pain, described in heart-wrenching interviews throughout the documentary.
Roer’s film proves that Navalny is a determined man with the presence of a movie star. His humble demeanor, along with his political zeal, make him a beacon of hope for activists fighting oppressive regimes around the world. “You can’t give up,” Navalny says at one point in his documentary. “If they decide to kill me, that means we are incredibly strong… We have no idea how strong we really are.”
Contact Madeline Kane at [email protected]